Somebody fell in it.

And by it I mean the tired old WomenCan’tDoStuffBecauseTheyAreWomen pit–a veritable snake hole crawling with misogynists, essentialists, and old school protectionists.

Image adapted from public domain photo // Design by Anne Bobel Zelek
[Actual menstrual status of shooter unknown. That’s the point, people. You can’t tell]

Terri Proud, a newly hired Administrative Assistant in the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, landed in the pit recently when she (allegedly) made comments about women’s menstrual cycles in combat. She was fired, and her boss, Colonel Joey Strickland, was asked by the Arizona governor to resign (apparently, Strickland hired Proud against the Governor’s wishes).

According to the Arizona-Sonora News Service, when asked about women serving on the front lines, Proud said “Women have certain things during the month I’m not sure they should be out there dealing with….”

Proud says she was misquoted. Was she or wasn’t she? Even if the quote is verbatim, I struggle to imagine a government official’s capacity  to register the absurdity of this comment, but maybe I am just cynical. Suffice it to say, there is surely more to this obviously political  here, but I’d like to focus on the menstrual dimension.

The assumptions about what women can and cannot do while menstruating make for a long and logic-defying list. The rationale for menstrual prohibitions is sometimes religious  (e.g., bans on menstruating women from religious rites, sex, and food preparation). There’s another category of no-nos beyond the menstrual taboo, though.  Women can’t do [fill in the blank] because their periods render them incapacitated or otherwise put them at risk. Many people still believe a woman should not camp or hike in bear infested woods because their menstrual odor will render them bear bait.  Not true. Often, women themselves are constructed as the predators during their PRE-menstrual period. You know….PMSing women are dangerous, even potentially homicidal. And women can’t be trusted to make decisions (or serve on the Supreme Court) because they are Out Of Control.

But we know differently. Women—during all phases of the menstrual cycle—can do all manner of things,  all the time, thank you very much, including jobs that are not, shall we say, menstrual management-friendly. They fight forest fires. They collect data in remote field sites. They orbit space. They are perform brain surgery.

Yet, PREJUDICE against women is often JUSTIFIED because they menstruate. The Disability Rights/Inclusion Movement has taught us that often, the most pernicious barriers to inclusion are perceptions, not the actual limits imposed by our disabilities. That’s certainly the case here. Let me go out on limb here: if women were respected, if women were valued, if women were seen as competent peers, then the fact of their menstruation would be less of a “disability” and more of a fact of a life.

But you know what? I want to give Terri Proud the benefit of the doubt for a minute. When pressed about her comment by The Arizona Daily Star, Proud said “I don’t have a problem with women being on the front line if that’s their choice….I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘No, you don’t have that right.” In the same story, Proud is described as harboring  a “curiosity”  about “how menstrual cycles are handled” and noted “that whether or not that hurdle is being addressed is a real issue, even if it isn’t talked about. Women are designed differently from men and need to have their needs met on the front lines.” And I say to that: well done Terri Proud, Menstrual Activist.

Because she is right. Menstruation is a reality, and menstruators need support and resources. Managing our menses can be tough when we don’t have access to facilities, or privacy, or both. Anybody that’s been camping while on their period can tell you that (bears notwithstanding) this IS a REAL issue. So she is right to ask (even if she is merely doing so to recover from blurting out something really dumb) What is the US military doing for women in combat? Now with the ban on women in (officially recognized) combat positions is no more, a change in policy that is expected to open 230,000 front-line positions to women, this question demands answers.

One answer: Suppress menstruation through the use of extended oral contraceptive pills. That is an option, yes, but it might not be the right one for every woman. Even beyond many menstrual cycle researchers discomfort with the one-size-fits-all approach to dosing cycle-stopping contraception (readers of re:Cycling are no stranger to concerns about this trend), there is a deeper concern about the implications of just making the menses go away.

Cycle stopping contraception, Liz Kissling has argued, enables a particularly new manifestation of the docile neoliberal subject. The feminine non-mensturating body, is not, as popularly believed, liberated, but rather, one held even tighter to the hegemonic male standard. Place this compliant amenorrheaic body in the context of the military and a curious paradox is revealed. The submissive soldier? The docile woman packing an assault rifle? Really? Seems both oxymoronic, and hardly like a gain in the fight for women’s equality.

Instead, can we imagine an expanded universe of menstrual management options?

  • Reusable cups and sponges provided for free (with eww-effect reduction training included) ?
  • Cycle stopping contraception offered as an option (not a mandate)—including an honest discussion of risks and benefits?
  • Quality reproductive health care in which menstrual health is a part of a comprehensive whole?
  • Work cultures, even remote ones, that acknowledge cyclical and variable human needs of all sorts?

Otherwise, if women must alter their very bodies to “fit in” and be taken seriously in their jobs, show me the ground we have gained. Cuz when I look down, all I see is the bottom of the same ole stinky pit.

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